Congress is cruising toward repeal of federal speed limits despite a simple law of nature - drive faster and you raise the risk of dying or being horribly hurt in a crash.
Survey after survey has found that to be true in most states where the 55 mph speed limit on rural interstates has been raised to 65 mph. Fatalities rose 20 percent on average - a loss of 400 to 500 more lives a year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“Seems to me we’ve had enough experimentation,” said Susan Baker, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied road safety since the mid-1960s. “When the states had to have 55 mph speed limits, the number of deaths went down. As the rural interstates raised their limits to 65, we’ve seen … lives being lost.”
But with anti-Washington sentiment, the clamor for states’ rights and relatively cheap gasoline, safety has taken a back seat to convenience. Congress expects to reconcile House and Senate versions of a repeal of speed limits this week.
Motorists itching to hit the accelerator look forward to seeing the clock being turned back to 1973, when states set their own speed limits. The range was up to 75 mph, except in Montana and Nevada, where no top speeds were posted at all.
But it’s not just Westerners longing for the open road. Even people in petite, populous states such as Massachusetts look forward to faster traffic.
Gov. William F. Weld said he wants to raise his state’s speed limit once he gets Washington’s green light. “If the roads can take it and it’s not a safety factor, then I say, ‘Why not?”’
It’s states that are best-equipped to set speed limits, argues the motorists association based in Dane, Wis., and claiming 15,000 members.”We want the state traffic engineers, as well as the people in that state, the people and the politicians, to decide what’s safe,” spokesman Robert Morrow said.
Spokesman Robert Morrow also flatly disagrees with those who say speed kills: “That’s not true. The safest possible speed is speed of traffic, regardless of what the numbers on the signs say.”
But figures compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tell another story: In many rural Western states, the percentage of speed-related road fatalities is above the national average.
In 1993, when 30 percent of fatal crashes on all roads nationally were speed-related, they accounted for 53 percent in Wyoming, 48 percent in Oklahoma and 43 percent in Montana, the traffic safety administration’s surveys found.
It doesn’t take much research to know that most people speed anyway. The question is: How much?
Baker, at Johns Hopkins, said lowering the limit to 55 mph made the speed of travel more uniform.
On a road with a 65 mph limit, the range of speeds was 50 mph to 75 mph, researchers found; when the limit was 55 mph, the lower end was 55 mph and the upper end was about 65 mph.
“The difference in speed between two or more vehicles is very important,” Baker said. Motorists know this “if you’ve ever come up behind a slow-moving truck or a merge area.”
Adopted in 1974 to save fuel and money after the 1973 oil embargo, the 55 mph federal limit turned out to be a lifesaver.
Highway deaths fell 16 percent - from 54,052 in 1973 to 45,196 in 1974. The decline has continued, and today, the annual toll is about 40,000.
Safer cars with better seat belts and air bags, roads with better markings and speed controls and stricter enforcement of drunken-driving laws are among the reasons cited - along with slower speeds.
Nevertheless, Congress is speeding into a limit-less future.
Last Wednesday, the House voted to repeal the federal limits in approving a bill designating the National Highway System. A Senate version passed earlier would drop the limit for automobiles only. If the bills are reconciled in committee, the repeal would take effect immediately. Lawmakers hope to get that done this week.
Though Transportation Secretary Federico Pena opposes lifting the speed limits, President Clinton has not threatened a veto.